Posts Tagged ‘scalia’

Oh, Scalia

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that we really like Scalia.  We really do.  We like the way he thinks, we like the way he writes, and we like that he’s not a phony.  His law clerks may moan and groan that he’s hard on them, but they’ve actually got it pretty easy, because he knows what he thinks and (more importantly) he knows why he thinks it.  He doesn’t need them to do the heavy lifting for him.

At the same time, we’ve had to take issue with some pretty boneheaded things he’s written or said.  In his attempts to discern what the authors of a given law were talking about, he often misses the underlying policy.  The job of a top jurist or legal scholar is to figure out what the underlying principle is that explains, not only the law as written, but also the jurisprudence and related laws that have flowed from it.  Do the deep thinking to figure out what value our society happens to have, which the authors of the laws and court opinions may not have had the insight to notice themselves, but which nevertheless explains why this particular area of law is the way it is.  Once that root principle is known, it is easy not only to understand what the framers were saying, but also what has been said since, and even predict what is going to be said next.

Take, for example, his interview just published in this month’s California Lawyer.  Near the beginning of the interview, he had the following exchange:

In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don’t think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we’ve gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?


Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. … But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that’s fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don’t like the death penalty anymore, that’s fine. You want a right to abortion? There’s nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn’t mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and pass a law. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.

He’s right about what a Constitution is for.  The Constitution is not there to detail particular laws, but instead to set the philosophical framework under which laws can be made, and to define and limit the roles of government.  (Most other countries in the world don’t seem to get this, and what they call “constitutions” are really nothing more than statutes.  There really is a difference.)

And he’s even right about the role of the courts in deciding things that are properly left to legislatures.  He cites abortion, for example, which — if it had been left up to the legislatures — would probably have been legal in most or all states by the end of the 1970s, and the country would have moved on.  Opponents would have had their say, they’d have been outvoted, and the legitimacy of the process would have given the law legitimacy, and they’d have moved on.  Instead, it was imposed by judicial fiat, in a horribly-reasoned opinion, with the result that it’s become a wedge issue for nearly forty years.  The Court created law — something courts are not supposed to do, something courts never do well, and something that only de-legitimizes the result.

But he’s wrong when he says the Constitution doesn’t prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.  It does.  It really does.

Nobody thought that’s what the Fourteenth Amendment meant when it was passed.  Granted.  But that only means they didn’t have the insight to recognize the very principle they were upholding.

The relevant portion of (more…)

Supreme Court: If Prosecution Breaches Plea Deal, OBJECT!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

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Voting 7-2, the Supreme Court today ruled that a defendant cannot appeal when the prosecution reneged on a plea bargain, unless the issue was preserved before the trial court.

In his majority opinion for Puckett v. U.S., Justice Scalia cleared up a split among the circuits. There had been differing opinions on whether this situation was one of the exceptions to the general rule requiring that issues be preserved below. He sort of signaled his take on the issue with his first sentence: “The question presented by this case is whether a forfeited claim that the Government has violated the terms of a plea agreement is subject to the plain-error standard of review set forth in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

The facts of the case are going to sound familiar to anyone who’s been doing criminal law for very long. The defendant was indicted for armed robbery, and negotiated a plea deal. As part of the deal, the prosecutors promised to tell the court that he “has demonstrated acceptance of responsibility and thereby qualifies for a three-level reduction…” But then, after the plea but before sentencing, the defendant got in trouble again, this time for a scheme to defraud the Postal Service. The prosecutors changed their mind, in light of this new information, and told the sentencing court that the defendant should *not* get credit for accepting responsibility.

The defense attorney called foul, and reminded the court of the terms of the plea agreement. The judge turned to the prosecutor, who dismissed it as having been written a long time ago, and the new crime changed the situation. The judge decided that he couldn’t grant a reduction, and wouldn’t even if he could, given the new crime. He did impose a sentence at the low end of the range, however.

“Importantly,” to Scalia, “at no time during the exchange did Puckett’s counsel object that the Government was violating its obligations under the plea agreement by backing away from its request for the reduction. He never cited the relevant provision of the plea agreement. And he did not move to withdraw Puckett’s plea on grounds that the Government had broken its sentencing promises.”

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that error had occurred, and it was obvious, but it did not cause prejudice, so it was not “plain error.” Basically, the defendant couldn’t demonstrate that his ultimate sentence would have been any different, whether the prosecution had recommended the reduction or not, given the judge’s disinclination to grant it in the first place.

But there was a conflict among the circuits as to whether the plain-error test applies to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements. So the Supreme Court granted cert.

In finding that Rule 52(b) does apply to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements, Scalia started with the principle that plain-error review is rightly the norm for unpreserved errors, because “anyone familiar with the work of courts understands that errors are a constant in the trial process, and that a reflexive inclination by appellate courts to reverse because of unpreserved error would be fatal.” Exceptions to the normal rule do exist, of course. But should this situation be one of them?

Everyone took it as given that the government had broken its agreement. The issue is whether, in the absence of an objection below, anything could be done about it on appeal here.

The defendant first argued conceptually that the government’s breach of the plea agreement made that agreement void, and so voided the guilty plea. Scalia pointed out that breaching a contract does not make the whole contract void and invalid from the first; the contract remains enforceable.

The defendant next argued that there was precedent in *Santobello*, where a broken plea promise was grounds for reversal in the interests of justice, even though the breach did not affect the judge’s decision and thus the error was harmless. Scalia countered that whether or not an error is harmless is not the issue here, which is whether the error can be subjected to plain-error review. In *Santobello*, moreover, the issue clearly had been preserved below.

The defendant then argued that applying Rule 52(b) makes no sense, because objecting to a plea breach is futile; the prosecution’s wrongful action cannot be undone. The judge will have heard the improper recommendation, and can’t unhear it. Scalia stated that requiring an objection prevents defendants from “seeking a second bite at the apple” after waiting to see if they like the outcome or not. Also, some breaches are curable. And those that aren’t can be remedied by the trial court, such as by withdrawal of the plea, or by resentencing before a different judge.

The biggest point the defendant raised was that plea breaches fall within “a special category of forfeited errors that can be corrected regardless of their effect on the outcome,” so that even if there was no prejudicial effect, there still ought to be a reversal.

Scalia responded by categorizing the exceptions that do exist: errors that “necessarily render a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence,” or that “defy analysis by harmless-error standards by affecting the entire adjudicatory framework,” or which involve “difficulty of assessing the effect of the error.”

None of those considerations applied here, so Scalia decided that this situation just didn’t fit as an exception to the general rule.

Justice Souter, joined by Justice Stevens, dissented. Although the defendant wasn’t terribly sympathetic, and although they agreed that the plain-error test is the right one to apply here, the dissenters felt that the Court was looking at the wrong effects.

The majority (and apparently the parties, too) looked at the effect of the error as merely being the length of the sentence, which probably wasn’t affected here. Souter, in contrast, saw the effect as being “conviction in the absence of trial,” or in the absence of “compliance with the terms of the plea agreement dispensing with the Government’s obligation to prove its case.”

The criminal conviction itself, not the length of sentence, is the effect on substantial rights according to Souter. Due Process and fundamental fairness require, “before the stigma of conviction can be imposed,” either a trial or a plea agreement honored by the Government. “It is hard to imagine anything less fair,” he stated, “than branding someone a criminal… because he entered a plea of guilty induced by an agreement the Government refuses to honor.” Sentencing after the prosecution breached a plea agreement would always, by definition, be plain error.

Justice Souter’s approach is, of course, attractive to those who value the fairness and integrity of jurisprudence. However, it is hard even for this defense attorney to agree that all such sentences are necessarily plain error, especially when an adequate remedy (getting to take one’s plea back) is available if the defense attorney is paying attention.

Scalia’s Right! Supremes “Quite Irresponsible to Let the Current Chaos Prevail”

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

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18 U.S.C. § 1346 expands the definition of mail & wire fraud to include “a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” That’s short and sweet, but what does it mean?

The courts have been left to define the crime for themselves. Unfortunately, they differ wildly in what the theft of honest services means. The Fifth Circuit says it’s only a crime if the deprivation of services was also a crime under state law. The Seventh Circuit says the crime is when someone abuses their position for private gain. The Third Circuit says gain is irrelevant.

In general, they agree that employees and public officials have a duty to act only in the best interest of their employers and constituents. But there are lots of ways to act otherwise, and the courts seem to agree that not all of them ought to be criminalized. There is a spectrum of behavior, ranging from the socially acceptable to the abhorrent. Where the line ought to be drawn is undefined and uncertain.

So the Supreme Court finally had a chance to clear it all up, define what “honest services” means, and give straightforward guidance to the courts and to all the employees and officeholders out there. Sorich v. United States, No. 08-410 came to the Supremes on a cert petition, asking them to define the crime and settle the issue at last. That’s what the Supreme Court likes to do, after all — if the circuits can’t agree, it the Court’s job to define the correct approach.

Instead, the Supremes punted, and denied cert.

Scalia wrote an intense dissent, pointing out that this is precisely the kind of issue that the Court ought to resolve, that the split among the circuits is causing confusion in the law, and that real injustice is resulting. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “quite irresponsible to let the current chaos prevail.” We can’t help but agree.

“If the honest services theory… is taken seriously and carried to its logical conclusion,” Scalia pointed out that all kinds of actions would be criminal. Not all ought to be. “A state legislator’s decision to vote for a bill because he expects it will curry favor with a small minority essential to his reelection,” a perfectly normal and expected aspect of electoral politics, would be a federal crime. “A mayor’s attempt to use the prestige of his office to obtain a restaurant table without a reservation,” a perhaps obnoxious act, but one hardly worthy of punishment, would also be included. “Indeed, it would seemingly cover a salaried employee’s phoning in sick to go to a ball game.”

“What principle it is that separates the criminal breaches, conflicts and misstatements from the obnoxious but lawful ones, remains entirely unspecified.” Failing to define what the crime actually means invites unjust prosecutions by “headline-grabbing prosecutors.” Furthermore, nobody knows if their actions would be considered criminal or not, and “it is simply not fair to prosecute someone for a crime” that won’t be defined until the judge’s ruling that sends him to jail. “How can the public be expected to know what the statute means when the judges and prosecutors themselves do not know, or must make it up as they go along?”

Scalia closed with an excellent dictum, quoting from another useful dissent — that of Hugo Black in Green v. United States, 365 U.S. 301, 309 (1961) — “Bad men, like good men, are entitled to be tried and sentenced in accordance with law.” It is truly unfortunate that the Supreme Court has passed on an excellent opportunity to ensure just that.